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Want to Control a Media Interview? 8 Naive Mistakes

Most organisations want to control the media or at least want to control what is written or broadcast about its business.  A surprising number of senior business people, in my experience, do not understand that as the ‘fourth estate’ journalists can write whatever they like – with very little constraint. There are laws of libel and slander and some very strict rules around court reporting. But beyond that in the UK, most of Europe, the US and Australia there are very few other restrictions. The freedom of journalists can be more restricted in other countries.

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It is not sensible to verbally attack or threaten a journalist. Most treat their independence as a matter of honour and they may be tempted to write a critical piece just to prove the point.

This press freedom is a source of great angst and concern to many senior people. Even those who have absolutely nothing to hide.

[By contrast, seasoned media performers realise that 100% control is impossible.  Whilst they prepare and are disciplined about what they say, they are likely to take a more ‘you win some, you lose some’ attitude to what a journalist writes.]

Given the high level of unease, there are often inappropriate attempts to control the interview and write up process. Here are my top eight.

1. Asking for a list of questions before the interview

At first sight, this seems completely reasonable but journalists hate it, mostly because it gives the impression that they are being overly controlled. Many will not provide a list, others will happily give a list of questions and then ignore it in the actual interview. The effect is counter-productive for the interviewee because preparing for one set of questions only to be asked completely different ones is annoying and stressful. Much better to ask a broader question such as ‘what are you interested in?’, ‘what’s the story?’ or ‘what’s your angle?’.

2. Telling the journalist you know the editor and have influence

I have only come across this rarely and find it very funny. All I can say is that editors are rarely open to any kind of external influence. Being independent is a matter of honour for most journalists. What’s more, claiming special influence is likely to annoy everyone in the editorial process and they might be tempted to ‘prove’ their independence’ by printing something you would rather not see in print.

3. Asking to check the copy before it is printed

This is not uncommon these days in the trade press but is not something that respectable national newspapers would allow.  There is a less intrusive version which is to ask to ‘check quotes’. It still smacks of naivety to my mind and can give the interviewee a false sense of security. Even if a journalist allows you to see the copy or quotes before publication, he or she is unlikely to allow you to make anything but the most technical of changes.

4. Telling the journalist what they can’t ask

Again, journalists do not obey rules. If you tell them they can’t ask something they are very likely to ask it. You are potentially alerting them to a sensitive area. What is more, making it look as if you or your spokesperson is unable to handle a question makes you or them look weak.

5. Allowing your PR person to intervene during the interview

PR people should only intervene if they absolutely have to. Again, it makes the interviewee look weak and the organisation look over-bearing. I blogged a few months ago about the interview where the off-camera PR person intervened because the former CEO of Persimmon did not want to answer a question about his bonus. As we know the CEO subsequently lost his job -after the intervention went viral on YouTube!

6. Attacking the journalist

This used to be more common than it is these days. Most people now understand that it is never going to look or sound good. Better to understand that journalists are allowed to ask anything and you as the interviewee can choose how to respond. Often journalists do not subscribe to the point of view they are putting in a question. They are just representing another side of a story. We are taught always to balance a story or an interview and asking a tough question is one way to do that. Accept they are just doing their job.

7. Questioning the source of the journalist’s information

This is a more subtle form of attacking the journalist. For my money it is fine to say ‘I am not sure those numbers are right’ or ‘I don’t recognise that’ before moving to your argument. But don’t get into a fight with the journalist by saying ‘where did you get that from’, ‘tell me where you got those numbers’ etc.

8. Giving information then saying: that is ‘off the record’

There are some occasions where ‘off the record’ has a legitimate place in PR but they are fairly rare. If you want any agreement to be respected it must be put in place in advance of an interview and absolutely not during the interview, after you have just said something you shouldn’t have said. In general ‘off the record’ is a tool that can be used by a professional PR but should be avoided by interviewees.

The way to control media interviews is to do your preparation and deliver high-quality information in colloquial language. You should, of course, also prepare for any particularly difficult questions. Finally, it is important to be disciplined and in control during the interview to ensure you don’t say things by accident that provide embarrassing headlines. In fact what you need is a little training, but then I would say that wouldn’t I?

Lindsay Williams

About Lindsay Williams

Prior to founding her communications training agency, The Media Coach, Lindsay Williams worked as a journalist from 1983. She specialised in financial and business journalism since 1991. After thirteen years in the BBC with local radio, regional television, Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live, she moved to Reuters Financial Television as Deputy Programme Editor. Working freelance from 1998, she was contracted in a variety of roles including as an executive producer for Bloomberg television delivering half hour profiles of Chief Executives, as a producer with Sky Business Unit and at CNBC. She has had articles published in Sunday Business, The Business, The Times and in specialist magazines such as Companies & Finance and Impact. For the majority of her journalism career she specialised in reporting business and finance. Lindsay Williams hosts a range of bespoke communication skills courses for The Media Coach which include Media Training, Presentation Training, Crisis Media Training and Message Building.

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